While much of the rest of the country is experiencing a deep freeze, here in Oakland we’ve been enjoying a little summer in January. But that great weather isn’t without its troubles.
On January 17, Governor Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency in response to the driest year in California’s recorded history. The governor’s declaration calls for a voluntary 20 percent decrease in water usage, and cuts red tape for transferring water to those who need it.
“We can’t make it rain,” he said, “but we can be much better prepared for the terrible consequences that California’s drought now threatens.”
Rita Schmidt Sudman, Executive Director of the Water Education Foundation, says the main purpose behind the governor’s declaration is to bring public attention around saving water. “You may live somewhere the water supply is good, but that shouldn’t reduce your conservation practices. You can’t just not do your part,” she said. “Conservation should be a way of life.”
According to the East Bay Municipal Utility District, Oakland’s water resources remain in fair condition, with reservoirs 63 percent full. The difficulty is that we’re not getting the rain and snow we normally expect. Ninety percent of Oakland’s water comes from snowmelt in the Sierra Foothills, but the 4.6 inches we’ve received so far this winter is down 20 percent from average.
“We have gone from monitoring to planning for the eventuality of a drought,” Andrea Pook, a spokesperson for EBMUD said. “We have not yet declared a water emergency, but we are asking people to continue to conserve.”
Pook says Oaklanders are already doing a good job of saving water—an average of 15 percent—but more can be done. “A good place to start is to check for leaks,” she said. “Something like a toilet leak unnoticed can use up to 7,000 gallons of water a month.”
Customers can request a free WaterSmart Home Survey Kit from the EBMUD website that will check water flow in sinks and showers to reveal leaks and inefficient fixtures. Pook says older, inefficient shower heads have the potential to use nearly seven gallons of water a minute. EBMUD may be able to help you replace an old shower head with a newer model that reduces usage to just two gallons per minute.
But water usage inside the home is only half the battle. The other half of residential water use is done outside. According to Sudman, a half-inch of irrigation for a normal sized lawn is equal to 104 showers. “If you don’t need a lawn, now is the year to get rid of it,” she said.
Getting rid of your lawn could include switching to native and drought resistant plants including lots and lots of succulents. But if you want to keep your lawn, there are ways to save water there too.
One way is to install a gray water system.
“Installing a gray water system can save 10,000 gallons of water a year,” Or Rabinowiz, a permaculture designer at Planting Justice, said.
Gray water systems direct water straight from your washing machine to your lawn. A three-way valve is installed at the back of the washing machine where used water normally drains to the sewer. A turn of a valve redirects water from the sewer to your yard, assuming you’re using a detergent that doesn’t contain any boron or salt.
It’s important to remember that gray water is dirty water, but it’s good enough for your plants. If you let it out under a pile of mulch, it can slowly feed your fruit trees and perennial plants, but Rabinowiz warns about using grey water for your annual vegetable garden.
“You don’t want the gray water to come into contact with the part you’re eating,” he said.
Planting Justice’s Transform Your Yard team can do a grey water consultation in about an hour for $90. Installation of a grey water system runs about $1,200.
There are other ways to save water too, such as drip irrigation systems for your garden and harvesting rainwater in tanks. Or you could take the advice of Oakland Local reader and water conservationist, Heather Cleveland.
“We make it romantic,” she said, “showering together to save water!”